If this thrilling World Cup has shown anything so far, it’s that it is the most open tournament we’ve seen in a long time. Normally, the main contenders for the crown take time to grow into the competition and it’s at about this stage that they step up and show their credentials. However, having watched every minute of every single game, it still seems completely unclear as to who the team or teams to beat are. In fact, the eventual winners might not necessarily be the best overall team but the team who can take the most punches without being knocked out.
Brazil were the favourites before a ball was kicked to win their sixth title on home soil and they are still in it, by the skin of their teeth. Given their impressive performance in the Confederations Cup last year, and the incredible level of passionate support behind them, it looked as if it would take a very good side to defeat them and the entire nation backing them from the stands and the streets. The fact that Chile came within a width of a crossbar, and then a penalty shootout, from doing so might suggest that they aren’t quite the force everyone thought they would be. Whilst Chile are a very capable side and a difficult team to beat, Brazil rode their luck on several occasions.
Brazil’s team, whilst nowhere near the same level as some of the great teams they’ve had in bygone eras, is still a very good squad and one of the strongest in the tournament. The problem is that they have many “good” players and many “great” players but not many “world class” players who are the potential match winners at the highest level. Neymar is without doubt their main man and is capable of doing just that (and has been doing just that so far) but other than him they are really lacking. One particular area of weakness is in the striking department. Fred is more of a European no-nonsense number nine than a typically silky skilled Brazilian. He performed well at the Confederations Cup and scored vital goals (and he does look like a decent striker in fact) but so far he has looked like a bit of a misfit.
The alternative to him is Jo, who didn’t exactly pull up any trees during his short and unspectacular stint in the Premier League. The truth is, they simply don’t have many other viable options. All of the good strikers they’ve had in recent years, such as Leandro Damiao who starred at the 2012 Olympics and ex-Milan “wonderkid” Alexandre Pato, have gone well and truly off the boil. And of course, there’s also the one who (controversially) got away in the form of Diego Costa. However, judging on his performances for Spain at this World Cup, he wouldn’t have been of much help either.
Also, with hosting the tournament comes added pressure to deliver and the pressure on the Brazil team during this World Cup is immense. Not only in the sense that the nation expects them to win the trophy for a sixth time but also due to the unrest and the turmoil which hosting the World Cup has brought to the people of Brazil. In the build-up to the tournament, the dominating headlines weren’t about the football itself. They were about the protests and the hostile reception surrounding the tournament which was arriving in a country in which there is much poverty as there is luxury. Therefore it’s understandable that for those struggling in the favelas that they feel that the money which was used to fund the tournament could and should have been used to help them. Whilst theoretically they are playing in their home country, Brazil don’t necessarily have a total home advantage.
As a result, you get the sense that large sections of the Brazilian public are like a time bomb ready to explode and the elimination of Brazil would probably be the biggest factor to triggering that explosion. You could sense that the weight of the world was on the Brazilian players’ shoulders when they stepped up to take their penalties against Chile and that defeat was unthinkable. As a neutral I was nervous watching them, such was the sheer magnitude of the occasion. Whilst they’ve survived an almighty scare, they’re into the quarter-finals and are faced with what appears to be an even tougher South American opponent, Colombia.
Colombia have arguably been the most eye-catching team of the tournament with their refreshingly all-out attacking approach with speed and flair in abundance. Incredibly, you wouldn’t necessarily make Brazil the favourites for this one. Therefore, this upcoming quarter-final might finally shed some light on whether Brazil can go all the way or not. Before the tournament the main question mark on the Brazilian team was whether they would thrive under the pressure or crumble under it. This will be the biggest test of their character and their credentials so far.
However, somewhat ironically, the way Brazil’s tournament has gone so far is uncannily reminiscent of previous world champions. In 2006, Italy progressed through the same stage with a penalty that wasn’t in stoppage time against Australia. In 2002, Brazil themselves had a large slice of good fortune at this stage as well as Belgium had a perfectly legitimate goal disallowed against them before Brazil went on to win 2-0. Champions generally tend to have a stroke of luck somewhere along the way to becoming champions and Brazil have certainly had that so far, not just against Chile but also in their opening game against Croatia when a penalty that never was (similarly to Italy in 2006) helped them to three vital points.
Therefore, rather ironically, whilst so far Brazil haven’t looked capable of winning the World Cup, the way in which they’ve survived a number of scares already indicates that they might actually go all the way. To return to the start of this article, having seen every game so far, no side has really stood out as being the team to beat. Brazil are the team who have taken the most punches, but still haven’t been knocked out. Chelsea in the Champions League in 2012 were equally unconvincing and won it. Brazil could yet do the same in this tournament.
Photo: Loz Pycock (via Flickr)